The Avon Lady

As kids, Danny and I used to place bets on when Ada’s hairpiece would fall off. At dinner, it would shift to the left side of her head during the salad, and then slide toward her chin while we ate the main course. When, during dessert, thin gray strands of her own hair began to emerge from under the wig, we would gape openly while stuffing our mouths full of deep dish apple pie.

Of course, it never actually fell.

Not into the soup, for example, which was one of our more ambitious childhood fantasies. Even yesterday, after I picked up Danny at the airport, he mused somberly. “All my life, I have longed to see one of Ada’s wigs floating majestically in a large tureen surrounded by potato, tomato, and carrot chunks. Perhaps with a sliver of onion nested comfortably in a curl. Now, I never shall.”

I took his hand and pressed it. With equal solemnity, I asked, “What kind of soup?”

“Crawfish chowder.”

“Which wig?”

“Strawberry blond.”

I nodded.

I had waved at him frantically as he walked through airport security. Danny saw me right away and hurried over. I couldn’t read the expression on his face, but he could read mine. He grabbed both of my shoulders and squeezed. That was always his way of comforting me. It meant: Buck up. Be Brave. And I’m your back-up team, all at the same time.

“Hello, Jo Ellen.”

“Oh, Danny!”

Then my brother dropped his hands, glanced around, and inhaled deeply.

“Ah … ah…” he said. “Is that Virginia I smell? A whiff of stuffy minds? A breath of malicious innuendo? A scent of gossip? And…” He raised a questioning eyebrow. “Do I also detect the gentle aroma of familial obligation?”

I shook my head.

“She’s pretty awful, Danny,” I said.

I took his hand and started to drag him forward. We zigzagged around other passengers and plunged through a terminal door. I could feel Danny’s body stiffening beside me.

“Hold onto me tight, Kiddo,” he said. “Whenever I get into this town, I’m always scared silly that the universe will shrink to the perimeters of dear old Evansville, and I’ll get stuck here. Right now, I want to bolt.”

I held onto him tightly. “Not this time.”

We crossed the taxi lane and strode into the parking lot.


“What, Danny?”

“Promise me something.”


“Promise me that Evansville isn’t the entire world.”

I smiled. We went through this every time Danny came home.

“I promise.”

“And that tomorrow, Manhattan will still exist.”

“It will. And soon you’ll be back where everyone is moral, rational, intelligent, and reads The New York Times. We’re only small-minded here in Evansville.”

Danny ignored my sarcasm.

“Promise me that after Ada has shed this mortal coil and is selling Avon products in heaven, you will leave this sappy-syrupy little town.”

I unlocked the passenger side of the car.

“Get in,” I said, walking around the engine compartment and sliding behind the wheel. “I’m not leaving Evansville.”

“I can get you a job co-authoring a web blog with me in … well, anywhere civilized.” Danny persisted. “New York. Boston. Baltimore. Philadelphia.”

“I like my job here.”

“We could be a brother-sister reporting team. Like Woodward and Bernstein. Sacco and Vanzetti. Bonny and Clyde. Sodom and Gomorrah.”

I turned the key in the ignition. “Mr. Nesbitt said that he isn’t going to sell me the paper when he retires. He is going to give it to me. So I won’t have to borrow money to buy The Keystone Banner.”

Danny snorted. “Lucky you! Newspapers are dying all over the country, but kindly Mr. Nesbitt is going to give you one. My sister. Editor-in-chief of the Daily Dirge. Brilliant. You can bring enlightenment to rural America. You can teach the yokels how to…?”


“What, Hon?”

“You never liked Ada. So why did you come home?”

He didn’t answer for a minute. Eventually, he said, “Why did you want me to come? Why all this concern? Why a trip to the hospital? You never liked her either.”

I pulled up to a stop sign. I rolled down the window. Then I turned to look at my brother. “Damned if I know why, but the old girl suddenly got to me.”

He shrugged. “Me, too. And I don’t know why either.”

“Open your window,” I said. “As long as you’re here, you may as well enjoy spring.”

Danny shrugged. But he rolled down the window.

When we were children, Gram was an unending explosion of unexpected proclamations. One day, she would announce, “I’m going to knock down the silos behind the barn and plant peach trees.” Another, “Your mother is a moron, your father’s a Tom cat, and between the two of them, they haven’t got the brains to peel a potato.” And on a third, “Let them bring the wrath of hell down on this house, they’re terrible parents, and they can’t have you back.”

Mother and father were actors. Very bad actors, I might add, although I have a soft spot for my father, who lacked talent, but could – and often did – charm the pants off a saint. Mother was equally solicitous of gentlemen, but not nearly as charming. Gram had contempt for them both. She called her own daughter “the retarded product of in-breeding.” Gram had married her first cousin. “Marry Northerners,” she always admonished me and Danny. “You don’t want to have idiot offspring like me.”

Gram brought us up.

She was by no means open-minded, but her prejudices were comparatively harmless. She hated lawyers, nutritionists, music teachers, and direct-deposit banking. She was outraged that the government had stopped sending paper social security checks, and equally convinced that one day, the I.R.S. was going to pilfer all the money out of her savings account. She considered recycling the preoccupation of “sissies,” since anyone who lived on a farm had recycled since the day they were born; she refused to shop at chain stores, and she despised zippers.

Other than those amusing idiosyncrasies, Gram was pretty normal. She minded her own business, taught the children of rich Virginians how to ride horses, and considered all five of her daughters – not just our mother – “unfit to raise children, let alone hell.”

So, while my parents bounced back and forth between coasts, determinedly drinking themselves to death, Gram brought us up on her farm. She socialized us with the Best People, sent us to the Best Schools, re-roofed the stable, repaired broken fences, bred horses, and without knowing it, was so strong of character and so valiant of spirit that her mere presence was an unconscious affront to the small mindedness of the town in which we lived. With Gram in the foreground and my mother and father popping up periodically in the background, it would have been pretty hard for Danny and me to grow up with provincial, Evansville outlooks. And we didn’t.

Danny always … always … dreamed of leaving the South.

I always … always … dreamed of writing about it.

And Gram erupted with calculated unpredictability: “Don’t wear your skirts so short. You look like a Northern whore … Don’t read those trashy woman’s magazines … Marry a rich man from Philadelphia … Sit higher in the saddle … Don’t gulp down your food.”

Always impetuous. Always explosive. Always autocratic.

Well … not quite always. There was one exception for whom Gram set aside a little gentleness – her youngest cousin, Ada.

Ada lived in a small apartment over the garage, and she parked her spanking new red Chevrolet Camaro convertible in an unused section of the barn. Every night, she joined us for dinner, and while Danny and I snickered at her cruelly across the table when we were sure she wasn’t looking, Gram would give us looks to kill.

Then, after Ada had retired to the living room to leaf through back issues of Town and Country magazine – Danny says that Evansville is the only place in the entire universe where people actually read Town and Country – Gram would haul us into the kitchen and say sternly but not explosively, “I know Ada is a damn fool, but don’t laugh at her.”

Gram couldn’t get too angry, because sometimes Ada would model a new outfit or a new wig for Gram, and at the sight of her shapeless, beaded black dress against her stony white skin, with a bright smear of Avon’s Neon Orchid lipstick on her mouth and a bouncy, girlish red or blond or black hairpiece balanced precariously on her head, Gram would burst out laughing, too.

Poor Gram. She was sorry about it afterwards, and she always tried not to laugh. But Danny and I never even made the effort. To whatever negligible extent he and I believed in God, we also believed that all of God’s creatures were put on earth for a purpose. Cows, to give milk. Sheep to give wool. Horses to give rides. Ada, to give us someone to laugh at.

It took a lot of growing up and a few funerals to temper our cruelty with … with what? Danny and I still aren’t sure.

Mother and father died a long time ago. Their mutual and collective hearts, livers, and looks gave out at about the same time, and there was really nothing left for them to do but die. Gram died last year. Of nothing specific and everything in general. That’s called old age. She was 97 and had just finished currying one of the horses when down she fell. That’s how she would have wanted to go.

Her last words were to the fourteen-year-old who helped muck out the stalls in exchange for riding lessons.

“Get that shit out of here,” she said, pointing to a mess left behind by Clarion, a chestnut four-year-old. Clarion unexpectedly reared up on his hind legs. Gram’s eyes popped open. She called out joyfully, “Devil!” And her heart stopped.

Gram always did like a spirited horse.

Danny flew home for the funeral.

It was hard on us both.

We agreed not to sell the farm or the horses. I kept my apartment in the village, because I wanted to be near work, and we hired a man to run the place during the week. But I went up to the farm as often as I could.

Ada, of course, continued to live over the garage.

But it was even harder on her, having lost Gram, than on us. Gram may have laughed at her, but over the years, Gram had also given Ada a lot of affection. In some ways, I think that she loved Ada as much as she loved me and Danny.

Out of respect, we supposed, Ada wore her black wig to Gram’s funeral. Danny and I laughed about that afterwards. We had to laugh, or we wouldn’t have been able to leave Gram in such a cold, well-manicured, and inhospitable place. So after the graveside service, we went to Haskell’s Bar. We laughed and we drank. The whole town watched the two of us whooping it up – there is nothing in the world louder than a Southern whisper – and it disapproved.

At times like those, I can almost see Danny’s point about leaving the South.

Almost, but not quite.

I love the smells of springtime here too much. And I love the farm. I love the horses. I love the inky smell of our dilapidated printing press. I love our scandals, our municipal crises, our library sales (a buck a bag), and our Christmas parades, when some awkward teen who grew up on a dairy farm is crowned Snow Queen and gets to sit in the open cab of a fire engine decorated with blue and white fairy lights, and wave cheerfully at the crowd.

I’m a small town girl who cries when she sings the National Anthem, who someday wants to run the town newspaper, and who thinks that small town doesn’t necessarily predicate small mind.

Danny says I’m quixotic.

But he hates Evansville. Always has. Always will.

I don’t. The town can do its worst, but I’m not about to leave it.

After Gram’s funeral, Evansville did do its worst. There were murmurs of Gram having died “accidentally on purpose,” and whispers about what Danny and I might or might not have done to get our hands on the farm. Even poor Ada wasn’t spared. Gram had left her twenty thousand dollars, and people talked. Speculated. Implied. Whispered. I don’t know if any of those despicable innuendos got through Ada’s wigs to her brain. I hope not. But something did. Or maybe it was just the pain and loneliness of living without Gram that weakened her, because less than a year after Gram died, Ada had her stroke.

Ever since Danny and I came to live on the farm (he was seven and I was six), Ada sold Avon. According to Gram, she had been doing so for many years before we moved in. Even my mother, in rare moments of clarity, joked about Ada having been the Avon Lady as far back as she could remember. But Mother never made jokes about her in Ada’s presence, because she wanted to keep both Ada’s her good will and an open channel to the colognes and moisturizers that she occasionally gave away.

Which reminds me of something creepy. I told Danny about it, and he gave me a look that was, I suppose, the beginning of what eventually resulted in his theory about Avon being Ada’s religion.

What I told him was how, when our mother died and I had to go through her things, I found a plethora of Avon products packed among the clothes in her drawers. Lipsticks, mascara, skin softeners, cream sachets, and a bottle of something called New Good Luck Elephant Cologne, which I didn’t have the courage to open since the gold elephant on the bottle cap stared at me menacingly from under one of my mother’s pink negligées.

Years later when Gram died, it was the same.

Avon bottles and jars stashed all over the place. Sweet Honesty Gentle Moisture Gel at the back of the linen closet. Apple Blossom Foaming Bath Oil in the bottom drawer of a bureau. Blush-lucent Liquid Rogue in an attic trunk. Vita-moist Body Lotion under a saddle blanket in the barn.

I suppose that whenever Avon came out with a new product, Ada, in her excitement, offered it to Gram first. Not because she needed Gram’s money. She didn’t. Ada was the best Avon Lady in Virginia; she was awarded certificates that commended her enterprise, and she won plastic see-through raincoats as prizes for bringing in the most sales. She was even given an all-expense paid trip to New York as a member of Avon’s exclusive President’s Club … whatever that was.

So, Gram didn’t buy cosmetics to fatten Ada’s wallet. It was more that Ada saw herself as the Michelangelo of door-to-door sales. Avon was her Sistine Chapel, and Gram – crusty, crotchety, irritable and iconoclastic Gram, who had never been ridiculous one moment in her life – somehow understood.

Comprehension notwithstanding, it was eerie and absurd to have Avon as a constant thread running through all our tragedies.

After a funeral, I might be folding a dress of my mother’s or Gram’s and putting it in a pile to donate to Goodwill Industries when, on the corner of a closet shelf, my eyes would fall upon a never-opened box of Golden Flamingo Foaming Bath Oil. I would put aside the folded dress, pick up the box, and turn it over to see if there was a tiny red X penned in the lower left-hand corner.

That was a joke of ours when Danny and I were children. We’d been watching Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures or some such program on television. The show was about migrating buffalo and how park rangers shot them with stun guns, stapled tags on their ears, and then sent them off to roam where the skies are not cloudy all day. The following year, the rangers would check the returning herd to see how many had tagged ears, which gave them valuable information about the buffalos’ migratory routes.

So, Danny and I decided to test out a theory we had that nobody actually ever used any of the Avon products they bought from Ada (except my mother, who used them all), but that they gave them away as gifts for Christmas and birthdays, to friends and family who promptly forgot from whom they had received them, and eventually gave those same colognes and cosmetics away themselves.

In an attempt to trace the migratory routes of Ada’s Avon, we marked jars, tubes, and boxes with small red, green, and blue Xs, invisible to everyone but ourselves. We devised an intricate coding system, and year after year, the circuitous routes of our migratory buffalo never failed to amaze us. We trace one bottle of Here’s My Heart Cologne Mist from Ada to Gram to Aunt Charlotte to Aunt Charlotte’s cleaning lady Loretta, to Loretta’s sister Nancy Sue to Nancy Sue’s mother-in-law Dorothy, who had nursed Gram after she broke her leg. Dorothy, for some unknown reason, put that bottle of Here’s My Heart Cologne Mist on a shelf in Gram’s basement, which is where Danny and I found it eight years after it was launched.

Another time, I got a box of New Angel Lace Hostess Soaps at Christmas from the fashion editor of the Evening Eagle, where I worked on Friday afternoons during high school. It had a little red X in the lower left corner. That package was harder to track, because I didn’t want my benefactress to know that I suspected the origins of her gift. But Danny and I persisted, and eventually we discovered that the previous Christmas, the Eagle’s sports editor had given the soaps to the fashion editor. He had gotten them from his wife, who’d been given the box as a birthday present from Martha Asquith, who’d won it as a tournament bridge prize, which Eileen McDougal, President of the bridge club, had bought from Ada specifically for that purpose.

Danny calls that box “Lassie,” because it found its way home.

...Continued... See The Avon Lady, Part Two...

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